A Privileged Few Protest Food Technology
April 28, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
April 20, 2000
THE BridgeNews FORUM
WASHINGTON-The streets of the nation's capital are full of affluent white anti-capitalists, protesting globalization and such modern technologies as genetically engineered crops.
They demand global justice. They said they're protesting for the poor and the Third World. But there was no sign of the poor in this elite camcorder crowd.
With U.S. unemployment at a modern-day low, America's "poor" were too busy earning money to protest in the streets. The Third World's citizens were at home, busily building factories and export jobs.
The Washington Post, while editorially defending trade, nevertheless felt enough solidarity with the leftist protests to run a major front-page story April 13 titled "Free Market Left Rice Growers Behind in Haiti." The story recites the sad tale of impoverished Haitian rice farmers and their families, who recently tried to flee the country in a rickety boat and drowned.
The protesters claim the rice farmers were driven to their deaths by Haitian imports of American rice. It's true that rice imports have expanded since 1986 when Haiti's high tariffs were lowered on advice from the International Monetary Fund.
But Haitian rice growers had been unable to produce enough rice to meet the country's demand. The American rice shipments have not only fed Haiti's people, but have kept food costs low for the poor of Haiti's capital of Port Au Prince.
Theoretically, Haiti's freer markets should have attracted outside investors to create nonfarm jobs in export manufacturing. That's happened all over Asia and much of Latin America.
However, Haiti has been famous for unceasing political violence since 1804. It has had 10 governments just since 1986. Even the American troops stationed there for the last five years haven't been able to produce peace, which means no prosperity.
We should remember that even Asia's robust Tiger economies did not take off until the threat of violent Communist takeover was allayed, in part by American involvement in Korea and Vietnam.
The "global justice" protest was small by Washington standards; about as many people as George Washington's Mt. Vernon home attracts on a sunny spring weekend.
The protester themselves were shrill and arrogant compared with the civil rights marchers of the 1960s. They were no match for the District's police, who calmly kept them away from their nominal targets, the World Bank buildings a few blocks from the White House.
Monday had been billed as the peak protest moment, but dawned cold and rainy. Most of the protesters simply went home, already pleased with a weekend of sun, camaraderie and media praise.
There were over 1,000 arrests, most of them "arranged" as symbols. A few of the activists gathered at a food biotech conference in the National Press Club.
They kept declaring "the world has a lot of food" and "it's just a distribution problem." I kept asking who was going to give up what part of their current food supply for redistribution.
An intense young Brit, who said he reported for the London Guardian, asked to interview me as a "famous opponent of organic farming." Actually, he wanted to argue that trivial measures like land reform and cover crops would be adequate to feed people without biotech.
Maria, a young woman who grows organic vegetables on a vacant lot in New York City, made the familiar accusation the World Bank was promoting "unsustainable" intensive farming.
I asked how her "sustainable" agriculture would replace the nitrogen that crops take out of the soil. She said farmers should compost their grain stalks and animal manure.
I warned her they're already doing that, plowing billions of tons of crop residue and manure into their soils. But that provides only one-fourth of the nitrogen needed for current food production.
Three-fourths of our vital crop nitrogen comes from chemical fertilizer-80 million tons a year of nitrogen taken out of the air. Without the chemical fertilizer, we might have to plow another 10 million square miles of wildlands for clover and other green manure crops. Maria promised to do some more research on organic nitrogen sources and call me. She took my card, but I won't hold my breath.
It may be ego-satisfying to save the world by parading with the radical cheerleaders in the streets to screaming at cops, then flying home to one's personal computer and dot-com job. But it leaves the world's farmers trying to handle a flood of rising food demand with hand hoes.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.